The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have had another impressive offseason. Expectations were low regarding the Buccaneers’ ability to bring back many of their stars, especially players like Ryan Jensen and Leonard Fournette. But thanks to another feat of impressive maneuvering from Jason Licht, helped by the return of Tom Brady, the Buccaneers managed not just to keep the vast majority of their stars, but also attract some extremely solid additions from the free agent market.
To put into perspective how impressive this turnaround was, let’s take a look at what the Buccaneers’ offense (where most of the offseason contention was) could have looked like if things didn’t go our way.
QB: Blaine Gabbert
RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn
WR: Mike Evans
WR: Tyler Johnson
WR: Scotty Miller
TE: Cameron Brate
OT: Donovan Smith
G: Aaron Stinnie
C: Robert Hainsey
G: John Molchon
OT: Tristan Wirfs
But after the series of swings taken in free agency, the above roster turned into one that is once again poised to make a Super Bowl run, with:
QB: Tom Brady
RB: Leonard Fournette
WR: Mike Evans
WR: Chris Godwin
WR: Russell Gage
TE: Cameron Brate
OT: Donovan Smith
G: Aaron Stinnie
C: Ryan Jensen
G: Shaq Mason
T: Tristan Wirfs
This is much more than a facelift, this is an offense that is significantly better than the one that lost to the eventual Super Bowl champions on a last-second field goal last year. And with a defense that has mostly avoided significant negative roster turnover, the Bucs are in a great position to flex their strength in the NFC once again.
With that being said, no team is without flaws, and the Bucs have a few remaining holes on the roster that should be addressed in the draft or the rest of the offseason. Let’s take a look at them.
1. Defensive Line
As of right now, the Buccaneers’ clear-cut biggest weakness is their defensive line. Shaq Barrett and Vita Vea are absolute stars, but the still-unsigned Ndamukong Suh and Jason Pierre-Paul mark two spots on the rest of the line that glare as holes.
Sure, Joe Tryon-Shoyinka showed flashes of solid play throughout the season, but the veteran savvy of JPP is not to be dismissed lightly. And if Suh doesn’t return, the Bucs have lost a very smart, extremely disruptive interior presence. Both of those players have had a tremendous positive impact on the team’s success, even as they begin to slow down in the twilight of their respective careers.
As it stands, the Bucs are left with William Gholston and Benning Potoa’e as the listed starters to take over for Suh and JPP. Potoa’e is an unproven player, and Gholston has shown his value as a backup, but hasn’t demonstrated the talent to be a comfortable starter in a defense that has relied so heavily on excellent defensive line play.
So, the Buccaneers approach the ever-important NFL Draft with a clear need to fill. With they choose to use a pick on a high-risk high-reward rookie? Or will a deal get done between the team and Suh/JPP? Either way, expect the Bucs to make moves along the defensive line before the season starts.
2. Offensive Guard
No position group for the Buccaneers, quarterbacks notwithstanding, has experienced as much drama as the offensive line. At the beginning of the offseason, Bucs fans expected to lose Ryan Jensen and Alex Cappa. Well, Cappa did leave to lead a Bengals o-line still smarting from their meeting with Aaron Donald, but Jensen was a surprise stalwart, choosing to stay with Brady. And, in a saddening move that caught most by surprise, Ali Marpet called it quits on a truly incredible career.
In response, the Buccaneers traded with the Patriots for another superstar talent in Shaq Mason. Through all that turnover, the Bucs are left with a very good overall line, missing just one piece. The right guard position is currently held by Aaron Stinnie, who has been a very capable backup during his time in Tampa, even becoming an instrumental part of the Buccaneers’ Super Bowl victory two seasons ago. But he is the clear weak spot on a line that cannot afford any.
The most important thing for the Buccaneers is protecting Tom Brady, that has been the case since he joined the team, and Byron Leftwich cannot be fully comfortable with that responsibility falling on the shoulders of a perennial backup. Luckily, the NFL Draft has plenty of talent in the trenches. It is likely a matter of if, not when, the Buccaneers choose to pull from it.
3. Tight End
Similarly to the defensive line, the Buccaneers may still have the perfect person to fit in as their starter here. Rob Gronkowski, who is a free agent, has said that he would only play for Tampa Bay if he chooses to return to the field again. Most bets are on him eventually returning, but it is certainly no guarantee. After all, he has tasted retirement once already.
For the meantime, the Buccaneers’ clear top option is Cameron Brate. Brate, as Bucs fans know, has been a constant presence the last several years. He is a red zone threat, with the smarts to uncover against linebackers and the ball skills to outfight most players for the tossup passes. He is a fine option for Brady and the Bucs.
But Byron Leftwich loves to incorporate the tight ends into his offense. Just having Cameron Brate limits his ability to do so. If Gronk returns, he and Brate will combine again to fill this current need, but if he chooses to re-retire, expect Tampa Bay to be eyeing a deep tight end class in day two of the Draft.
No disrespect to Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jamel Dean, or Carlton Davis, but the Buccaneers have yet to hit on a truly excellent cornerback. All three current options are serviceable, with Davis being a very solid member of the secondary and Jamel Dean/SMB performing at a more-than-adequate level for a couple of years now, but a truly elite athlete on the outside would change the game for this defense.
Cornerback is likely not a priority, and the Buccaneers should focus on Suh and JPP with the fraction of cap space they have remaining for free agent signings. But if the right person falls to Pick 27 in the draft, it would be worth a long look for Jason Light and company.
The draft has a series of excellent first-round options, but almost all are projected to be off the board well before Tampa Bay is on the clock. But who can tell which players will experience a draft-day slide? The Bucs are almost certainly keeping an eye out for that to happen. It should be interesting.
5. Middle Linebacker
This is less of an immediate need, and more of a long-term contingency plan. Because, while Lavonte David has yet to show signs of significant slowing, his Hall of Fame level career is certainly nearing its end.
Devin White has proven value, but also proven weaknesses in coverage and with zone schemes. The Buccaneers could ride with Anthony Nelson and Grant Stuard, but investing a Day 2/Day 3 pick into linebacker could provide a spark that allows the team to move on with minimal hitch after Lavonte leaves.
Simply put, the Bucs know what Stuard and Nelson bring to the table, and if they fill in for Lavonte David there will be a significant drop off in skill level. But a rookie is an unknown factor. The potential is sky high, and even if they don’t prove to be a fitting successor to David, they would provide needed depth at a vital position. To Jason Licht, this might be worth a swing come draft time. Bucs fans certainly can’t wait to find out.
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